MIT Study Reveals Attitudes. About Autonomous Vehicles, That Is

by Sara Lacey

An MIT study conducted in April of this year was recently published, and it contains some interesting information regarding consumer attitudes surrounding modern vehicle technology and driving alternatives. The study, titled “Autonomous Vehicles, Trust and Driving Alternatives: A survey of consumer preferences” took the pulse of 2954 respondents and asked what they like about autonomous vehicles, their satisfaction with in-vehicle technology, and their thoughts on alternative methods of transportation.

When asked whether they were happy with their current in-vehicle technology, most respondents had largely positive impressions and experiences. According to the study, “Over half reported positive associations with the technology: 28% of participants are very happy with the technology, and an additional 42% like most of the features. Some individuals (15%) liked some of the technology in their vehicle but do not use most features. A smaller number of respondents are very unhappy with the technology, or have no opinion on it either way (6% and 8% respectively).” Of interest are the responses about how people would prefer to learn about in-car technology vs. how they actually learned it. Driving alternatives were covered in the survey as well. Methods included were: bus, car sharing, electric bicycle, manual bicycle, ride sharing, and subway.

The interesting (though not surprising) factor regarding the responses above are the ages of the respondents. Instead of listing another table, I’ll just quote the survey for you: “Older adults in the sample were far less likely to use most alternatives to driving than younger and middle-aged adults. Older adults were most likely to select ‘none of the above’ as having been used in the past year. While older adults reported having used public transportation systems in the past year, only a few reported having used newer mobility solutions such as car sharing (3.9%) or ride sharing (16.2%). It’s not shocking that older people are less likely to embrace more modern solutions, particularly when those solutions may require the use of apps and smartphones.

Perhaps the most surprising data in this survey is about autonomous vehicles and consumers’ impressions. The initial query from the survey asked respondents how comfortable they were with what level of vehicle automation. The options were: No Automation, Emergency Only, Help Driver, Partial Autonomy, and Full Autonomy. Younger drivers (age groups combined to represent ages 16-44) are more comfortable with Full Automation than ages 45+.  Those older drivers are much more comfortable with the Help Driver option.  The next question delves into detail about which specific features people are more comfortable with (help with steering, help with speed control, and the like. That data is interesting, but I want to focus on the degrees of autonomy.

An article by Patrick Olsen of Consumer Reports contrasts this survey’s findings with a survey from last year. What he reveals about the new information compared with historical information is that consumers are less trusting of fully autonomous vehicles this year. “Only 13 percent in this year’s survey said they’d be most comfortable with ‘features that completely relieve the driver of all control for the entire drive.’ That’s down from roughly a quarter of drivers surveyed last year.”

Olsen’s article continues, “The 2017 survey—conducted by the MIT Advanced Vehicle Technology research consortium—also showed changes in sentiment by age group. This year, for drivers 25 to 34, only 20 percent said they’d be most comfortable with full autonomy; for drivers 35 to 44, it was 21 percent. That’s a dramatic decline from just last year, when 40 percent of drivers 25 to 34 and 35 percent of drivers 35 to 44 said they’d be most comfortable handing over full control.”

Clearly, automotive manufacturers are going to have to work to rebuild confidence in full automation. The MIT study says that “training and perceived ease-of-use directly correlate with eventual adoption of the [Help Driver] technology.” They conclude by saying that improvement in the simpler technologies could encourage progression to comfort with fully autonomous vehicles.

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